LONDON: The “Friends of Syria” group of Western and Arab foreign ministers meets in London on Tuesday hoping to persuade opposition leaders to attend a planned peace conference in Geneva next month.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the London meeting was aimed at persuading Syria’s fractious opposition to have a “united position” for the conference in the Swiss city, pencilled in for November 23.
The Syrian National Council, a key member of the Syrian National Coalition, has already said it opposes the conference and threatened to quit the opposition grouping if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad takes part in the United Nations-backed Geneva II conference.
Tuesday’s talks group the so-called London 11, the core group of the Friends of Syria that consists of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, together with opposition leaders.
“The National Coalition has said they will go to Geneva. Within the National Coalition, there is the National Council, which has said it’s opposed to doing that. It will be resolved among the opposition through a general assembly of representatives in a couple of weeks time,” Hague told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
“So we are meeting ahead of that to encourage them to have a united position, to show that those in the world among Westerners and Arab nations who understand and sympathize with their position in Syria have a united position, that they should go to the Geneva peace talks and stop the blood and talk together as Syrians,” Hague added.
But Assad dealt an early blow to efforts for a peace hopes, saying in an interview that factors are not in place for the Geneva II conference to succeed.
“No time has been set, and the factors are not yet in place if we want [the US-Russian initiative dubbed Geneva 2]to succeed,” Assad told Lebanese television channel Al-Mayadeen on Monday.
“Which forces are taking part? What relation do these forces have with the Syrian people? Do these forces represent the Syrian people, or do they represent the states that invented them?” Assad asked in typically defiant fashion.
In the lengthy interview, Assad also said he was willing to run for re-election in 2014, in remarks that came soon after US Secretary of State John Kerry said that if he were to win, it would extend Syria’s civil war.
“Personally, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t run in the next election,” Assad declared.
Kerry earlier said that the Syrian opposition would never agree to Assad staying in power.
“He has bombed and gassed people in his country . . . How can that man claim to rule under any legitimacy in the future?” Kerry said after talks with Arab League officials in Paris.
Assad accused Saudi Arabia of conducting the work of the United States in Syria and also demanded that the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, stick to his mandate and not follow orders from other countries.
Brahimi is currently on a tour of the Middle East to drum up support for the peace conference.
On Monday in Baghdad, the envoy told reporters that all countries “with interests and influence in the Syrian affair must participate” in the Geneva conference.
The veteran troubleshooter has said he will also travel to Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Syria and then Geneva for talks with Russian and US representatives.